Installers need to bring a ‘safety first’ attitude to their crews and stress taking the time to get the job done right every day.


Through its new safety-training program, the Washington On-Site Sewage Association has made an incalculable positive contribution to the industry and every technician who’s worked in a trench or completed a tough confined-space job.

If you haven’t already seen videos produced by WOSSA through a training grant from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), you should take a look and then share them with your crews. The videos, and the collection of photos you’ll see here and along with writer Doug Day’s State of the States interview with WOSSA officials, confirm there’s a lot of work to be done to build safety standards across the onsite industry.

As you will learn in Doug’s story, WOSSA has developed a comprehensive safety-training program that includes the videos, a workbook and exercises aimed at educating on the Focus Four hazards identified by OSHA: falls, caught in or between, struck-by, and electrocution. The free training sessions have been offered by WOSSA in six states and the association wants to expand the reach further.

Related: Oklahoma tribal community receives free septic training

The facts presented are sobering. On average, 54 U.S. workers die every year in excavations and trenches. More than 90 confined-space entry deaths are reported annually. About 25 percent of the confined-space deaths happen during repair and maintenance, and cleaning and inspections operations.

Personal stories in the videos are riveting.

Went Ahead Anyway

In one video, onsite system specialist Justin Johnson described how he felt forced to enter a deep septic tank to repair cracks with liquid grout. As he roto-hammered holes in the compromised concrete, the tank wall gave way and he was injured before being pulled to the surface.

Related: Alternatives: Association News

“My first thought when I was presented with this job; it was a residential tank that was way too deep for what it was designed,” Johnson said. “We decided to go ahead with the repair ... when my first instinct was not to.

“I have been in other predicaments since then, and before I start any job, the first thing that goes through my mind is that I do have a family and my son is very important to me. ... Nobody is going to fill my shoes at home.”

Deadlines, tight scheduling and impatient contractors can encourage installers to take chances and cut corners. Weather conditions can also play a role in these tragedies, as customers don’t want a soaking rain to slow their project, even if delaying the work is the right thing to do.

Related: Two-Day Onsite Wastewater Training in Michigan

Keith Pelzel, owner of Westside Septic Design, explained in a video how he bowed to pressure and started working in the rain at an excavation with unstable fill soils. It was a mistake he almost paid for with his life.

I felt pressured

“I tried, on three different occasions, talking to the contractor trying to postpone doing the job that day,” Pelzel said. “Through a series of events and bad decisions, and things unknown to me, in 15 seconds I am completely passed out, no air. That’s it.”

Pelzel was buried in a collapsed trench, pulled out and revived, but he suffered multiple serious and painful internal injuries. He learned a lesson.

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“I did this from pressure from the contractor. It absolutely made a huge difference on how I looked at jobs,” he said. “I don’t let people push me anymore. I know what my limits are and I go to my limits. I don’t go any further.”

Do these stories sound familiar? Every onsite technician has felt similar pressures to get the job done now. Homeowners and building contractors want to stay on schedule, so installers may go against their better judgment and get to work. Look at the photos that accompany this column and our State of the States feature to see trenches that should be shored, trucks and excavators pictured in the wrong place at the wrong time, and technicians failing to don personal protection equipment, or PPE.

There are a few important takeaways from the training videos.

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Safety training is not a sometime thing.
What do you call a quarterly safety session with your crew? A good start. But it’s not enough. It’s important to review safety challenges your people are going to face every month, every week and every day. Make these meetings mandatory for all workers, even the office staff, so they understand all the work being done in the field and the procedures everyone should follow. Start the morning looking at where each crew is going for the day and what sort of safety equipment they should take along to the job site.

Sessions need to be compelling and informative.
Look for good sources of job site safety information, starting with the WOSSA program and the OSHA website, www.osha.gov. Check with your state’s onsite trade association for access to training materials or to set up association-sponsored training sessions. If you aren’t a member of your state association, check out the list of regional onsite associations with contact information in every issue of Onsite Installer. The Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show, this month in Indianapolis, is also a good place to attend training sessions that often touch on working safely. (See more on that at the end of this column.)

Make sure they’re paying attention.
Work hard to keep technicians interested in learning and reviewing safety procedures. It doesn’t help to call a safety meeting if no one is paying attention. Turn off the cellphones and demand everyone’s undivided attention. Ask questions, make eye contact and seek immediate feedback to make sure workers are hearing and understanding your message. Reinforce that safety is serious business and you expect full compliance.

Just say no to dangerous situations.
Refuse to bow to pressure to proceed with a job if you have any safety concerns. Tell your customers you’re going to require all necessary equipment to shore trenches, operate equipment safely and secure work sites. Encourage your crew to ask questions if they see something that isn’t right. Empower them to stop a job to rectify a safety concern. Preach that it’s more important to keep the crew safe than meet unrealistic deadlines. A “safety first” attitude will gain the respect of your workers and help ensure they won’t take chances because they perceive pressure to get the job done no matter the risks.

Lesson Learned

William Gonzales, owner of Grizzly Septic Services and a victim of a serious industrial accident, puts it all into perspective in one video.

“With regards to safety, money shouldn’t be a consideration, because what you save by your safety meetings saves money in the long run, both in employee safety and employee health,” he said. “A person doesn’t realize how quickly they can become injured and how a trivial little item can cause serious damage. So we must be aware on our job all the time with regards to safety.”

See You at the WWETT Show

Welcome to the WWETT Show! You may be reading this issue of Onsite Installer at the Indiana Convention Center during the 2017 WWETT Show, Feb. 22-25 in Indianapolis. This is the biggest trade show for the industries working in decentralized wastewater, including the installer community. When you’re here, you’ll see a wide range of onsite components and equipment used by installers, and have the opportunity to network with the best and the brightest contractors from across North America.

I’m here, too. I will be roaming the exhibit hall looking at the latest onsite technologies, and meeting manufacturers and contractors alike. I’d enjoy meeting you and learning more about your business. Please swing by the COLE Publishing booth at the WWETT Show and introduce yourself. We’re always on the lookout for interesting onsite companies to feature, and challenging subjects for our monthly System Profile entry. Tell me about your most recent big challenge and maybe we’ll feature you in an upcoming issue.


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